rotating banner

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

#45: American Kestrel - Fiesta Island, CA

Sometimes, it’s the little differences. Sure California has tons of birds never seen anywhere near North Carolina, but even the birds we share seemed somehow atypical. A great example of this sentiment is the raptors, the birds of prey. Around here we’ve got Vultures, Red-shouldereds, Red-taileds, Cooper’s, Kestrels, and Peregrines (in more-or-less descending abundance), but out west I found a different situation entirely. Red-shoulders abounded as the most common raptor, followed closely by Cooper’s Hawks. I found Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks to be almost nonexistent (saw just one example of each), and Peregrines were surprisingly common compared to what I see out here. But it’s the American Kestrels that stole the show – I found more kestrels around San Diego in two weeks than I can find in North Carolina all year!

This sighting brings us back to that dreaded beachfront they call Fiesta Island. After driving the whole loop, James and I decided to make our way into the interior of the island, which proved to be a much more pleasant birding experience – gone were the raucous beachgoers, their incessant jet-skis, and their poorly trained leashless dogs. Instead, we found a quiet habitat of sand and scrub, a complete departure from the beach we just left. That morning, the ‘June gloom’ that now invaded August had been especially strong, with a thick fog just starting to lift as we explored this odd environment. James spotted a small bird on top of a shrub, and looking into my binoculars I found it to be none other than the American Kestrel you see below.

If only this were a nice-looking bird in good light... but ya can't always get what you want!

Apparently the thick fog soaked the bird’s already ragged feathers, and as James crept closer, the kestrel seemed to be in no hurry to leave. We just sat and stared at this all-together bedraggled-looking bird, and he just sat and stared right back at us. Finally, as James stood within six feet of him, the kestrel decided he’d had enough, and took off – not far though, just another small shrub not ten feet away. It looked like he was having a tough time of flying, so we slowly walked around him and let him rest in peace. To this day, it’s the best look I’ve ever had of an American Kestrel, and it’s likely to remain that way for a long time.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Is For The Birds

Ordinarily Thanksgiving would be a day to sleep in, relax, and perhaps take in a televised parade (I swear they didn’t lip sync when I was a kid, or am I imagining things?). But when James is only in town for a couple of days and my work schedule is pretty hectic, Thanksgiving is thankfully the perfect day to go birding.

In the hopes of nabbing James a couple of lifers, we headed down towards Jordan Lake. Come January, the cold nights of deep winter will draw thousands of gulls and scores of ducks to Ebenezer Point, but the relatively balmy weather suggested perhaps we arrived too early for this natural onslaught. While the lake itself looked pretty empty, I could still pick out a small raft of Redheads on the far side, with a lone female Red-breasted Merganser lounging around in the middle. Both of these were lifers for James, and though the photos are barely identifiable, this pair of Bald Eagles put on more than enough of a consolation show for us!

A picture really can't capture the majesty of seeing them in person!

While the mid-20th century may have been hard on these birds, I’m thankful to live in a time when a trip to Jordan Lake is guaranteed to land you at least one of these majestic eagles (only, we saw five!). But the sun shone low on the horizon, the day was young! We stopped by a couple of containment ponds nearby to the Point. Mostly there’s nothing special, the ubiquitous sparrows and juncos abounding in the fields. But for some reason, Bufflehead seem to gather in these man-made ponds in sizeable flocks, and today was no exception. Oddly enough, they seemed fine with James sneaking up to the chain-link fence and snapping these shots until he turned his back and left – only then did they flush!

Come on Bufflehead, get your head in the game!

However, turkey and football beckoned, so our Thanksgiving Day birding came to an end. Of course, the next day was Black Friday, and while shoppers flocked to the malls, we flocked to the birds! We had planned on visiting Stagecoach Road to try for some owls, but the sight of camouflaged men sporting blaze-orange caps and scoped rifles made us rethink this plan and instead head for the old standby of Mason Farm. Almost immediately after entering the canal area, I spotted an odd bird high up in a tree – an absolutely unmistakable Fox Sparrow, my first of the year and a bird I see all too infrequently. Unfortunately, he seemed content with the very tops of those trees, or with some low, thick scrub, and never ventured anywhere in between. While it’s the best photo of a Fox Sparrow we have, it still leaves much to be desired!

Ironically, it showed up close and out in the open... when we both had our backs turned!

After we gave up on the sparrow, almost as if on cue, a large flock of blackbirds descended upon the low trees near the canal. Some of them were undeniably large Common Grackles, shouting cacophonous phrases from their tree-top perch. But among the din we could hear another noise, the characteristic squeaky door hinge of a Rusty Blackbird. We’d seen Rusties here last time we visited, but these guys took it to a whole new level – the flock contained at least thirty-five of these endangered blackbirds, and several of the nicer looking males took the time to sing that weirdly mechanical song of theirs. One of the males did not care at all as James inched closer to photograph him, much to our enjoyment.

This brings the winter's total up to 77... not that it's a competition or anything. (It is.)

James and I walked the rest of the trail, but we couldn’t find much more bird action, so we left to cruise the open fields and farms of Dairyland Road. We first stopped at the legendary Anilorac Farms, the site of those nesting Scissor-tailed Flycatchers from earlier this summer. However, huge tractors plowed the fields as we arrived, and we couldn’t find any of the hoped for birds. The fresh furrows should prove fruitful for American Pipits in the near future, but at the time the only bird we found was this juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a nearby telephone pole. We’ve gotten notoriously bad shots of raptors in the past, but this one stuck around as James deftly maneuvered himself into position.

Why can't all raptors be this cooperative?

We had only one site left on our unofficial itinerary, a small back road with a couple of hedgerows along its edges. Sure, the large flocks of Eastern Meadowlarks were nice to see, but normally it wouldn’t be anything to write home about. However, this random spot is the only place I can guarantee myself a White-crowned Sparrow every winter – and today was no exception. As I neared a crepe myrtle, two birds flushed across the road, and in the perfect afternoon light I could clearly see their namesake snow-white crowns. After a spot of playback, one of them flushed to the top of the bush to get a better view, and gave us our best photograph ever of these amazing little birds.

Awesome sparrow, or the awesomest sparrow?

Normally White-crowned Sparrows are extremely uncommon in the Piedmont of North Carolina, but around these hedgerows we found at least eight or ten, including a nice singing individual. After slaking our thirst with amazing views, we headed home quite content with what we’d found. Sure we never got to search for those owls we were hoping for, but between a Rufous Hummingbird, a couple close-up Bald Eagles, and incredibly satisfying point-blank looks at those White-crowneds, this turned into an amazing Thanksgiving weekend full of the best kind of birding – birding with my brother.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Species Spotlight #13: Desert Cottontail

Like I’ve mentioned several times before, the most common mammal in North Carolina is our omnipresent Eastern Gray Squirrel, and in San Diego they’ve got an equivalent – last week’s California Ground Squirrel. But our second most common mammal is the fairly ubiquitous Eastern Cottontail, a medium-sized but incredibly skittish rabbit that can be found foraging on grasses in parks, gardens, and suburban lawns. Not to be outdone, San Diego has their own version, a rabbit that in the absence of greenery instead lives in brushy, dry, and dusty areas throughout California. I present to you the Desert Cottontail.

Don’t be fooled by its moniker – the Desert Cottontail is just as likely to be found in suburbs as the Eastern Cottontail, only instead of living off of manicured lawns and hiding under dense foliage, it thrives in the canyons that run between neighborhoods, blending in surprisingly well with its drab surroundings. When I first encountered these large rabbits, I found myself struck by how colorful they were compared to their Eastern relatives. Where our cottontails are uniformly brown all over, the Desert Cottontail sports a pelt of intricate tans and grays, punctuated by a gaudy (for a rabbit) nape that shines bright rufous in the sun. Quite the departure from what I’m used to!

It's either deal with us humans or jump in the river. I think he's chosen wisely.

While I’d seen these guys all around during my early expeditions in San Diego, James and I ran into this guy on a small bike trail that runs along the San Diego River towards the ocean (but to be fair, pretty much everything in San Diego runs towards the ocean). As odd as it seems, we found this specialized desert dweller under a highway overpass where the only shelter came from the sparse shrubbery lining a concrete barrier. No way an Eastern Cottontail would expose himself to such conditions, and yet here in residential San Diego, this Desert Cottontail found himself right at home.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Most Rufous-y Hummer in the... Yard

It’s nearly Thanksgiving, and while that means a day of turkey, beer, and football, it also means that James is back in town from college! We only had a couple hours to bird, but our first stop was a no-brainer: I took James to visit the Rufous Hummingbird that’s been coming to a feeder not five minutes from my apartment in Chapel Hill.

The last three times I’ve visited this bird, I’ve had to wait anywhere between and thirty minutes to an hour and a half for the bird to show up, but not so this time. Within about five minutes we heard a reedy whistling and looked up to see the hummingbird sitting right in the sun! James got fantastic life views, and I enjoyed seeing him closer than I ever have before when he flew off. So I devised an experiment – because of the difficulty identifying Selasphorus hummingbirds, nobody’s really quite sure whether or not this could actually be an Allen’s Hummingbird. So I preloaded my phone with the song of a Rufous, and upon playing it the bird dashed from over the weedy field and hovered right in front of us for several seconds before landing in a bush not six feet away! In my mind, this confirms his identity as a Rufous Hummingbird.

I doubt we could've gotten this close even in its home range!

As we accomplished our goal nearly an hour ahead of the time we’d allotted for it, James and I decided to hit up Mason Farm, the local spot that’s always got a little bit of something. Today, that something turned out to be sparrows of all kinds – loads of White-throateds, Chippings, and Songs poured out from the bushes along the canal. In the middle of a nearby path, we found this rather bold Painted Turtle attempting to cross from one section of canal to the other, but not before we stopped to take a couple pictures. He didn’t seem to mind too much, never completely retreating into his shell, and after we were done he went about his merry way and slid down the nearby bank into his watery home.

Although I don't think anyone enjoys having a camera shoved in their face.

Once we got away from the main canal, the bird life seemed to lessen, in number anyway. But as we walked along the vast fields, a bird flushed from the undergrowth much like a sparrow would. But the bird flew too high, too quickly, and it was too black. No, the dry call notes we were hearing belonged to a male Rusty Blackbird who’d apparently been foraging next to a small pool beneath a bush. He’s a male, but most of his breeding plumage has turned into that rusty coloration that gives the bird his name. While Rusty Blackbirds as a whole have undergone a massive population decline in the last couple of decades, I can still find them every winter, something I’m truly thankful for.

This makes something around forty-two I've seen this winter. Must be a sign!

While James photographed the blackbird, I heard the unmistakable jungle-like call of a Pileated Woodpecker emanating from the nearby forest. Turns out, the bird was closer than I thought. As we rounded a corner, James gave the signal to stop moving and crept over to his left. The bird lay just on the other side of a tree just a couple yards off the path. James got into position and snapped this shot of an enormous Pileated Woodpecker working his way up a horizontal branch.

Still looking for that perfect shot, but this'll do. For now.

But that’s not even the best part: just after James took the picture, the titanic bird flushed off the tree right towards him, and skimmed less than two feet over his head! Talk about your close calls! The rest of the trail didn’t hold many new or exciting birds for us, and the clouds appeared rather ominous, but the memory of point-blank looks at Rufous Hummingbirds and Pileated Woodpeckers is more than enough to label this day of birding a smashing success!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What's So Great About That Allen Guy, Anyway?

Like the rest of the rare birds I twitched this weekend, the tiny hummingbird coming to the feeder of a local park in Catawba County meant relatively little to me listing-wise. Unlike everybody else crammed into the room of the park’s offices, I’d gotten my lifer out in California, so this insane rarity would merely have to be a state tick. Still, I found it totally worth going out with a bunch of area birders to see North Carolina’s second record of Allen’s Hummingbird.

Because we had to return by noon, the four of us were out the door by 6am, which meant that after a rather uneventful 2.5 hour drive, the mid-morning sun shone upon a lone sugar feeder in the middle of a small clearing. At first, we could only see sparrows and chickamice and cardinals flocking around the outskirts of the clearing. Then, I caught the motion of a small shape on the nearby brambles, like a bumblebee skimming across the browning shrubbery. “There he is!” announced Dwayne, the finder, identifier, and ultimately bander of this impressive little specimen. “He’s back on his favorite perch.” Sure enough, camouflaged perfectly among the brown and green leaves, the Allen’s Hummingbird perched for all to see. Without warning, the little orange bird with a perfectly green back made a bee-line for the feeder, and all of a sudden the shutters of watching birders began to click like paparazzi following a celebrity. But a good celebrity, like a Scarlett Johannson or a Robert Downey, Jr. Not one of them Kardashians.

He was actually pretty small... more of a Danny DeVito type.

The hummingbird flitted back and forth between his little perch on the brambles and the feeder, with brief interludes to locales unknown. Each time he made it to the feeder, the cameras would click and words of awe would be exchanged among the birders. For a hummingbird of the Selasphorus complex, he’s surprisingly easy to identify, looking like he just jumped out of a field guide. After having our fill and getting overkill (but totally awesome) scope views, the four of us called it a day and returned for the long trek back to the Triangle. Totally worth it, in my opinion – the birds I saw in California would almost uniformly flush from in front of me, so it was nice to finally get the killer views I’d always dreamed of.

Not bad for having to photograph through a window, I say!

But the question remains – who is this Allen guy that got a hummingbird named after him? Turns out Charles Andrew Allen was an accomplished taxidermist of all things, who collected specimens on the West Coast during the latter half of the 1800s and sent them back to scientists out East. Apparently he recognized that a hummingbird specimen from Mexico represented a distinct species, and told his Eastern colleagues about it – and thus the Allen’s Hummingbird received its title, in honor of the one guy who knew it was special.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Should’ve Taken that Left Turn at Albuquerque

When you chase a bird, it’s usually for some specific reason – it’s a life bird, a state bird, a county bird, or hell, even a year bird. So I found it odd to be foaming at the mouth for a bird that’s amazing, totally unexpected, and way out of place that couldn’t be considered any of those things. In fact, were it for one key difference, I wouldn’t have batted an eye at all.

You see, a Great White Heron was reported from a small pump station along the Eno River in Durham. It’s like the more common Great Blue Heron in every way, except that it happens to average larger, have an all white plumage… and there’s one more thing… oh yeah, they happen to live exclusively in extreme south Florida and the Caribbean. How it ended up along a random bend of the Eno River, I’ve no idea. Doesn’t look much like the Florida Keys to me!

Looks about as far from the Florida Keys as you can get!

I didn’t expect to find much when Mark, Scott and I descended upon that old pump station. In all honesty I assumed the bird was the result of a misidentified Great Egret, but on that off chance we had to check. Looking around the busy overpass yielded nothing more than a few Song Sparrows, but I couldn’t give up that easily. I scanned the river bank to no avail, and I decided to walk just around the bend to see if it was roosting along the far side. All of a sudden, I saw it, right in front of me. A hulking white bird, with an unmistakably huge bill and pale legs – an honest to God Great White Heron! After firing a few record shots, we tried to get closer, but the bird flushed downriver. I didn’t have a shot I was happy with, which would never do, so I gave chase!

Damn you, twig-through-the-face! Damn you to hell!

Stumbling over loose rocks and hidden stumps, I found myself thinking that in all honesty, the bird had probably flushed farther than I could see. I decided to scale what looked like an old dam to get the best possible vantage point when a large white shape busted off the side of the river… it had to be gone for good this time! Not so, it flew just twenty feet and landed on a sturdy branch hanging over the rushing waters. This was it – my one and only chance to photograph a real Great White Heron. Luckily, even through the twigs and leaves in front of the bird, my camera nailed the focus!

Yep, I'll take that. It gets better if you zoom in!

So what makes this a Great White Heron and not just a highly leucistic resident Great Blue? I mentioned the huge boat-like bill, which makes the Great Blue’s look slender and narrow by comparison, and the pale yellowish-gray legs (Great Blues have rather dark legs). There’s also the short head plume which you can see in some of the shots, totally insignificant compared to a Great Blue Heron. But then there’s the size. I didn’t notice it at first, but on the way back I caught a Great Blue Heron in flight along the river. It looked very thin and lithe compared to the behemoth of a bird I’d just witnessed. When I got home, I checked some pictures online just to make sure, and it matched up perfectly. Bill shape, leg color, plume length – it was all there. As Marissa Tomei might say, the bird looked dead-on balls accurate.

Click through for HD Video!

So now comes the question of – why? It’s just a rare subspecies (the white morph of the larger Ardea herodias occidentalis), so it does nothing for my county lists. But having seen it, I can say it was totally worth it, even just to be in the presence of this amazing bird. Plus, if they ever decide to split it again (as David Sibley so wants to do) I get a free armchair tick. So I guess this one goes out to all the bird record committees out there – please split the Great White Heron. I don’t even care if it’s a good species or not. At this point, having seen one in my native Durham, I’d really just like to add it to my life list!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Who's That Hummer? or, The Great Feeder Watch

In North Carolina, whenever a hummingbird decides to stick around for winter, you’ve really got to follow up on it. Our native Ruby-throated Hummingbirds rarely stick around for the winter, and it's much more likely that an over-wintering hummer is a rarer western species. So, when I heard about an unidentified hummingbird hanging out at a random residence in the middle of Chapel Hill, I had to check it out.

I had to use my flash in the shadow of the house, something I'd rather not do.

My vigil began slowly. The hummingbird feeder hung under an eave, and the whole patio lay cast in shadow, which made a cold, breezy day even colder. The birds didn’t seem to mind though. Common suburban species abounded, things like Titmice and Chickadees making up most of the flock, with some Robins, White-throated Sparrows, and Downy Woodpeckers thrown in.

These guys are definitely one of the perks of living in the southeast.

This Brown-headed Nuthatch had a propensity for a feeder nearest the porch, and several times would land at the nearby birdbath for a drink. Under one of the tables, a Carolina Wren would creep around looking for a nibble of suet before realizing he was feeding not three feet from a waiting birdwatcher.

Usually they're way more skittish than this, but I wasn't moving much.

That’s when it happened. The bird of the hour showed up with a high-pitched tsik! and landed in a bush next to me. Perfect, in the sun and everything! Only, there were branches and remnant leaves in the way, and the camera just wasn’t having any of it.

Bad autofocus! Bad! Stop being a moron!

The hummingbird quickly flew over to the feeder and took a few sips. Which should have been better for photography, but bird decided to drink from the opposite side of the feeder, barely poking his head out for a photo. That wouldn’t do. So I stood up to get a better view, rather more abruptly than I meant to, and with another couple tsik! tsik!s it flew off. And I thought that would be it. 

Stop being coy with me, hummer!

Until another tsik! drew me to a tangle of branches in a nearby maple, its leaves brown from autumn. Even without my binoculars, I could see the bright rump of none other than a rare Rufous Hummingbird, surprisingly well camouflaged amongst the remaining leaves longing to fall of their branches. He appears to be a subadult male, the rufous rump already well-formed, and generally bronze in color everywhere else. Luckily, he didn’t mind me inching closer for a couple more shots.

Maybe he's tired from crossing the entire country?

One step two close, however, and he headed off across a nearby grassy lot. The bird definitely appears loyal to that feeder he’s chosen, so perhaps he’ll stick around all winter. Or, at least, he’d better stick around for the Christmas Bird Count!

How about just til James gets back for Thanksgiving?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

#44: Heermann's Gull - Fiesta Island, CA

In my previous article, I expressed my disdain for Fiesta Island, its dirty beaches, the incessant jet skis, and those styrofoam coolers the locals were drinking cheap beer out of. We wouldn’t have visited were it not for the promise of birds, and soon enough we weren’t disappointed. Sitting amongst those Western Gulls lay an all-together gaudy bird, dark body and white head, with a comically red bill – none other than a Heermann’s Gull, the coolest gull in these United States.

Before I traveled to San Diego, Heermann’s Gull lay atop my “must-find” list. Around here, I’m relegated to Ring-billeds and Bonaparte’s gulls, nothing you’d really write home about. The promise of a gull that destroys the preconceived notions of subtle mantle and leg coloration became a beautiful reality while looking at this boldly marked bird. At the time, I though perhaps I’d be lucky enough to find one or two, if I looked hard enough. I did not realize the full extent of the situation.

Quite frankly the most ridiculous looking gull. Also, the most awesome looking gull! 

Like their Western Gull cousins, Heermann’s Gull is surprisingly common. Down at Torrey Pines State Park, I found a flock of several dozen, mostly juveniles in a dark gray plumage, but more than a couple looking like a white-headed harlequin in gull’s clothing. The best pic we got ended up being that bird from Fiesta Island, but nary a day went by when we couldn’t see a Heermann’s Gull or two. It’s definitely the coolest gull I’ve ever seen, and one of the coolest gulls in the entire world.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Species Spotlight #12: California Ground Squirrel

I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate the drastic change in fauna between North Carolina and California than to compare their two most common mammals. Last week, I showcased the Eastern Gray Squirrel, a species that can be found in any environment at any time of the year. It’s an arboreal specialist, jumping from treetop to treetop, clambering up and down the loose bark at speeds only a highly evolved animal could attain. However, there’s one major difference in the habitats present in southern California – they don't have trees, not like the hundred-footers we can get around here anyway. As such, the common squirrels there have had to evolve a much more terrestrial lifestyle – and thus I present you the California Ground Squirrel.

Perhaps he's just looking for an afternoon sugar rush?

James first photographed the ground squirrels several years before on a past trip out west. He found the one you see above trying to break into a tube of Mentos, presumably to improve his acorn-breath. But the picture exemplifies the adaptation of these squirrels to an urban environment much like their brethren from the east, even without the aid of trees. I first encountered the squirrels on that very first day in San Diego, at Famosa Slough. Walking along the path, I saw something dive behind a hillside of low-lying vines, and immediately I thought it must be something exotic like the crazy western birds I’d been encountering. Alas, I found only a squirrel, albeit a rather more colorful one than I’m used to on the east coast – it’s mostly brown, but with a bright white collar that grades into a series of spots along its back. Not bad looking, for a squirrel!

They live up to their name - I don't think I ever saw one more than three feet off the ground!

When I say these things were everywhere, I mean everywhere. When we traveled up to Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains, the bird life around us changed – Mountain Chickadees instead of Bushtits, Stellar’s Jays instead of scrub jays, and Band-tailed Pigeons instead of Mourning Doves. But the squirrels remained the same, and James managed photograph this one in the late afternoon sun as he fed rather nonchalantly near our campsite. Just like the squirrels we found in San Diego, and just like the squirrels we’ve got back home.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

10 Prehistoric Birds You Didn’t Know Existed (But Were Totally Awesome!)

As a birder, it's a necessity to find passion in those birds around you, among them some of the coolest, rarest, and most interesting species to ever walk this Earth - amazing birds like the Araripe Manakin of South America, the Shoebill of Africa, and the Kagu of New Caledonia. But there's an entire other league of birds with which I've been interested for a long time, and I've decided to share them with you today. These are some of the coolest, rarest, and most interesting species of birds to ever walk this Earth - that are, for one reason or another, no longer alive to tell their tale.

10. Confuciusornis, the Dino-Bird of China

On this blog, we’ve already discussed how some birds are basically dinosaurs, but it turns out the line is so muddled that it goes the other way too. Some of the earliest true birds are rather superficially dinosaur-like in nature. Enter Confuciusornis, an early bird from China with some of the most exquisitely preserved fossils ever found. 

Some fossils even preserved internal organs! Photo via Wikipedia.

While it looks rather like a bird, with a pygostyle for a tail, long vaned flight feathers, and a toothless beak, but the wings have fully-formed clawed hands underneath the modern-looking feathers. From its fossils, scientists have discovered obvious sexual dimorphism among the birds, one of the first examples in the fossil record. Females look more or less like you would expect a bird to look, but the males exhibit spectacular twin tail feathers that appear as long ribbons, almost like the tail of a tropicbird or the aptly-named Ribbon-tailed Astrapia. As is often the case with such fossil creatures, nobody is sure how Confuciusornis once lived, but we can be sure of how it looked – recent research into preserved melanosomes has revealed that a male Confuciusornis looked mostly black, with large white patches on the wings. 

More or less what Confuciusornis really looked like. Photo via Wikipedia.

It’s one of the most common fossils found in the shale gardens of northeastern China, so hopefully in time we can learn much more about this fascinating creature.

09. Hesperornis, the Killer Loon of Kansas

Back at the end of the Cretaceous Period, that is to say, before the dinosaurs were wiped out by a wayward asteroid, North America was split in two by a large sea called the Western Interior Seaway. Large reptiles like elasmosaurs and mosasaurs populated this ancient sea, and the whole of North America would never see anything like them ever again. Living among them, on the shores of this vast waterway, were giant diving birds called Hesperornis.

A perfectly evolved fish-eating bird! Photo via Wikipedia.

They looked more or less like today’s loons, save for teeth in their bill that helped them catch fish much like a merganser would today. Oh, plus they were about twice the size! Hesperornis wasn’t closely related to any group of birds living today, but you can still find similarities if you know where to look. As Hesperornis was flightless, it had powerful feet complete with large lobes like those of a modern grebe or coot, surely an advantage when a bird spends its entire life on the water.

It probably propelled itself using its powerful lobed feet. Photo via

While many other birds have since adopted similar aquatic adaptations, Hesperornis was the first bird to perfect them.

08. Titanis, the Terror Bird of Florida

In an age when strange creatures like mastodons, lions, and camels roamed across ancient Florida, there lived a bird more powerful than any living since. Standing more than 8ft tall with a bill that could sever bone, Titanis was surely an apex predator in its time.

Definitely one of the most deadly birds of all time! Photo via Wikipedia.

The terror birds, also known as Phorusracids, evolved in South America when it was just an island, at a time when birds, marsupials, and unique mammals ruled the land. But when the continent rammed into North America, species began crossing into new territory in an event known as the Great American Interchange. Most of South America’s unique wildlife was replaced by things like big cats and modern ungulates, but some crossed back into North America, like the giant terror birds.

Imagine watching a Snail Kite, or a Mangrove Cuckoo when you're unceremoniously
killed and eaten by one of these things! Photo via Wikipedia. 

Interestingly enough, these extinct giants have a relative living today – the unique seriemas of the South American grasslands. While today they’re much smaller and much more slender than their gigantic ancestors, the seriemas live in a very similar habitat to the ancient Phorusracids. Luckily for those of us living in the States today, and especially the retirees in Florida, Titanis hasn’t walked this land in almost two million years.

07. Dromornis, the Demon Goose of the Outback

While the terror birds were roaming the ancient Americas, would it surprise you if to know an all-together similar bird was stalking the interior of prehistoric Australia? Probably not.

I mean, they do look pretty similar...  Photo by coolislandsong24 via

But what is surprising, however, is that this giant 10ft-tall, possibly flesh-eating behemoth was nothing more than an enormous goose. Nobody can quite say how Dromornis lived. Some scientists suggest it ate grasses and other plants much like a modern goose, but others argue its enormous beak meant it ate more than its share of flesh.

Does this look like the face of a killer to you? Photo via

This family of birds, the Dromornithidae, survived in Australia until around 30,000 years ago, which means that the first settlers of the Australian continent almost certainly encountered them, perhaps even contributing to their untimely extinction.

06. Inkyacu, the Monster Penguin of Peru

Penguins! Are there any cooler birds in the world? Well, yes, but that’s not important right now. The largest penguin alive today is the giant Emperor Penguin of Antarctica, which stands four feet high on a good day. However, just 35 million years ago a much larger bird inhabited the shores of Peru, but its size isn’t even the most impressive part!

Let's just hope those aren't unsuspecting swimmers in the background! Photo via

Sure, it’s almost a full foot taller than the Emperor, and it’s got a long spear-like bill that’s unlike anything seen in penguins today, but wouldn’t it be nice to know what Inkayacu looked like? Luckily, the fossils of this giant penguin include perfectly preserved feathers that, like those of Confuciusornis, preserve the melanosomes that give the bird its color. Rather than being traditionally black and white like today’s penguins, Inkayacu had reddish feathers on its breast and belly, with a grayish coloration everywhere else on its body.

Doesn't look anything like the ones we've got today.  Photo via

Why penguins all evolved to become black and white is anybody’s guess at this point, but what’s clear is they once inhabited a much wider range of the color spectrum.

05. Osteodontornis, the Meanest Seabird in the Pacific

The longest wingspan in the bird world today belongs to the Wandering Albatross of the Southern Ocean, but compared to Osteodontornis, a wingspan of just 11ft is child’s play. Outwardly, it may have looked and acted like an albatross, soaring low over the rolling waves of the Pacific, but the bird with a 20ft wingspan was anything but – it’s actually more closely related to pelicans, with one key difference.

Let's see if you can guess what it is... Photo via

Where most birds today are entirely toothless, Osteodontornis’s huge beak was filled with tooth-like serrations, the perfect recipe for catching fish on the wing. Standing almost four feet tall at rest, it may have been one of the largest birds ever to fly on this Earth. That is, until we get farther down the list.

04. Copepteryx, the Flightless Booby of Japan

Today, the family Sulidae is known for their extreme hunting methods – dive-bombing the ocean, wings swept back until the bird resembles a giant dart piercing the ocean’s surface. However, there once existed an altogether similar family of birds. Only instead of being perfectly evolved for aerial assault, they were completely flightless.

It's not the wings you have, it's how you use 'em! Photo by Meribenni via

In fact, Copepteryx didn’t act like boobies or gannets at all, but rather swam much like modern penguins, large agile birds propelled by flipper-like wings. Just before Copepteryx and its compatriots went extinct, the world became heavily populated with mammalian predators like seals and dolphins, and it’s likely this radiation led to the extinction of the so-called “Flightless Boobies”.

03. Ornimegalonyx, the Running Owl of Cuba

Imagine you’re walking through the forests of Cuba, a scant 10,000 years ago, when you hear a rustle off to your left. You see a large bird has just pounced on a rodent, but it’s not like any bird you’ve seen – at almost four feet tall, it’s long-legged like a heron or a stork, but it dawns upon you the bird you’re looking at is, in fact, an enormous owl.

It's basically a giant owl on stilts! Photo via Wikipedia.

Ornimegalonyx probably acted rather like the modern Burrowing Owl, preferring to walk on the ground as it was a rather poor flyer, evidenced by its reduced sternal keel. It probably fed on native rodents like the enigmatic hutia, but the owl was so large it’s possible it preyed on some of the smaller ground sloths that inhabited the island. No one is quite sure why the owl went extinct, but it’s likely the same event that wiped out the very ground sloths it once preyed on.

02. Talpanas, the Kiwi-Duck of Kaua'i

A braincase can tell you a lot about a bird. In this case, Talpanas lippa was a small duck whose remains were discovered in 2009 on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i. Its braincase was shallow and wide, with very small optic foramina (aka “eye holes”), but what does this mean for the bird? It would appear that Talpanas foraged upon the forest floor, likely blind and flightless, using sensitive nerves on the end of its bill to locate things like worms and grubs in the topsoil.

Looks like a walking platypus, doesn't it? Photo by HodariNundu via

Funnily enough, there’s a bird alive today that lives almost exactly like this – none other than the secretive kiwi of New Zealand. That a duck would convergently evolve almost the exact same lifestyle is extraordinary, but good luck finding one alive today – the species went extinct almost 6000 years ago.

01. Argentavis, the Largest Bird that Ever Flew

The largest birds flying today are the majestic condors of the Americas, specifically the Andean Condor. A monster of a bird with a 10.5ft wingspan and a top weight of 33lbs, it’s nothing to scoff at – in fact, it’s so heavy that it only rarely takes off from the ground, preferring to take off from a cliff face or mountain peak. However, in the past, there used to be much larger condors called Teratorns. These enormous birds were so big that the smallest one, the famous Teratornis of the La Brea Tar Pits, was still significantly larger than the Andean Condor. But the most amazing Teratorn was Argentavis, an epically large condor once found in the very habitat where the Andean Condor lives today.

Yeah, you better believe this picture's to scale! Photo via

It’s larger than any flying bird that has ever lived – a wingspan of 23ft makes it a larger soarer than Osteodontornis mentioned above, more than twice the wingspan of today’s longest wingspan, the Wandering Albatross. But wait, there’s more! The tallest flyer today is the Sarus Crane, at over 6.5ft tall – but the Argentavis was taller than that sitting down! This was truly a gigantic bird, and it persisted over the eastern Andes until just 6 million years ago. So how did Argentavis live?

I believe the technical Latin term is "amo a bulla"... Like a boss!
Photo by Wandering Albatross via

With its long wings and terrific mass (most estimates range over 150lbs), Argentavis was probably a dedicated scavenger like its living relatives, but there aren’t many large animals to scavenge in South America today. In the Miocene, herds of odd hoofed mammals totally unrelated to today’s ungulates roamed the grassy hills adjacent to a gigantic inland seaway, meaning Argentavis had plenty of carrion to scavenge from, and probably evolved its large size to maximize its feeding range. How such a large bird took off from the ground, like much of this amazing bird's biology, is totally unknown, and will probably remain unknown for a very long time.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that little diversion from my normal weekend bird report. It's been fun telling you about these awesome creatures, but this is truly just the tip of the iceberg. Many hundreds of fossil birds have been described to date, and there are many more to come. Perhaps in the near future I'll do a sequel to this list, but for now have fun with those birds that are still alive to grace us with their avian presence!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

#43: Western Gull - Fiesta Island, CA

As I mentioned in the most recent postmy first lifer in California was a nice Western Gull, and it’s no coincidence why – they’re everywhere down there. And luckily gull identification is really easy in SoCal during the middle of summer. There’re only two or three species present, and one of them is quite distinctive (more on that later), meaning that if there was ever a gull I had a question about, nine times out of ten I had a Western Gull.

On James’s second day in San Diego, we headed down to Fiesta Island in Mission Bay. Man, Fiesta Island is a special place. In California, they don’t really have the concept of “rednecks” like we do in North Carolina. But if they did, I’d guarantee you every one of them would head down to Fiesta Island. It’s a dank, seedy beach where the men are chugging cases of Coors Light and the women are walking around in bikinis two sizes too small. Somewhat unfortunately, the birds don’t seem to mind the beachgoers as much as I did.

Common, but hey - can't complain about a lifer! Can complain about the beachgoers, however.

As often happens in southern California, we found a flock of gulls along the side of the road. This Western Gull put on quite a show for us, squabbling with the other gulls in the flock and ultimately alighting for a second before finding his place back among his fellow gulls. That is, until some asshole in a jetski buzzed the shore causing all the birds to flush. But hey, it’s California, right?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Species Spotlight #11: Eastern Gray Squirrel

Yet I assume you don’t share the same animosity with squirrels that you do with rats, do you? … But they’re both rodents, are they not? And except for the tail they even rather look alike, don’t they?
– Colonel Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

This past weekend, I found myself walking down a forested trail at the local birding hotspot Mason Farm when suddenly I heard a rustling in the dead leaves to my right. My immediate instinct told me to find the source of the sound because it was probably a bird, right? No, of course, it was a squirrel, an Eastern Gray Squirrel to be exact. And then I heard rustling to my left – a second squirrel, and then a third along the trail in front of me and a fourth calling from a limb overhead.

That’s four squirrels in less than twenty feet’s worth of trail! These Eastern Gray Squirrels are by far the most common mammal in North Carolina, and you can find them pretty much anywhere, rural or urban. But why are squirrels so successful? I mean, as the shrewd Colonel Hans Landa put it, they’re basically just glorified rats with bushy tails. But there’s really more to it than that – squirrels are rodents more or less specialized for an arboreal lifestyle, and there are a lot of trees on the east coast. More so in the past than now, but squirrels appear readily adaptable, and have taken to urban living just as well as they did to their forested homes of yore.

Make no mistake - behind that blank state is a devious mastermind of an animal...

This particular squirrel was photographed by James coming to our bird feeders at home. In the winter, the squirrels will often feed alongside the towhees, juncos, and other ground-loving birds. Unfortunately, the squirrels will also find many innovative ways to break into our carefully guarded bird feeders, no matter the precautions we take. And perhaps that’s why they’re so successful – like most humans, or my dog, squirrels stand paramount among the mammals as an animal willing to travel great lengths to obtain food. No matter if it’s a trash can, a bird feeder, or an oak tree flush with acorns, a squirrel will find food even if it means competing with three other squirrels to find every morsel along a random trail in Mason Farm. It's really too bad they're so common –aside from that, they're actually pretty cool when you think about it!

Monday, November 7, 2011

To Twitch, or Not To Twitch?

Every once in a while, I get this urge. It usually happens when I’ve just settled down, started to relax, and because why the hell not, checked the local listserv, just to see. That’s when I notice a rare bird report from my area, and immediately I must give chase. This happened most recently with that Ross’s Goose that showed up in Cary recently – I didn’t need the bird for my state list, and I don’t particularly care about my Wake (and subsequently, Chatham) list, but I had to get down there to see that awesome bird. However, when something rare, say, a Tundra Swan, gets reported from my home turf of Durham, that urge turns into a need. A need for speed!

Unfortunately the bird was reported in the late afternoon, so I couldn’t race out to chase it until the following morning. A quick check of the Hickory Hills Boat Ramp on Falls Lake revealed a solid thousand Double-crested Cormorants, and some nice rafts of Gadwall and Ruddy Ducks, but not that magnificent bird I’d been hoping for. So, I decided to check out nearby Ellerbe Creek, whose mudflats still house shorebirds not yet wanting to head for climes further south. As I walked along the railroad grade, I heard a series of low chips emanating from the swamp to my left. That’s when I saw a flock of blackbirds hanging on an old leafless tree – Red-winged Blackbirds, as is to be expected, but also a good number of the overwintering and much more uncommon Rusty Blackbirds.

This was actually one of the more sizeable Rusty Blackbird flocks I've seen in recent years.

If the reappearance of Rusty Blackbirds doesn’t signal the start of winter, I’m not sure what does. These awesome brown-and-blackbirds have undergone a serious population decline recently, with somewhere between 85-98% of the birds disappearing over the past couple decades. As far as I know, nobody’s quite sure why, but it may have something to do with loss of breeding habitat in their northerly summering range. In any case, I’m glad I still get to see them down here every year, and lucky for me a nice rusty-looking female decided to hop up in the tree nearest to me – probably my closest ever look at a Rusty Blackbird!

I'll just come out and say it - one of the few species where the females are cooler than the males!

Heading down to the flats, I met fellow birder Nick Flanders scoping shorebirds from the far peninsula. The number of birds out there surprised me – several hundred peeps, mostly Least Sandpipers, plus decent numbers of Pectoral Sandpipers and both Yellowlegs. Almost more interesting were the American Pipits feeding intermittingly amongst the shorebirds, almost like they were honorary members of the sandpipers’ little mudflat club. Nick told me he had a relatively uncommon (and very late) White-rumped Sandpiper among the shorebirds, and as I neared, one of the pipits decided to land right in front of me and feed along the water's edge – and I was all too happy to snap this shot!

These guys were flying all over the place, making it very difficult to get an accurate count.

After enjoying the pipit I turned my attention back to the sandpiper at hand. As I crept closer to the feeding flock the mud grew deeper, and I began to sink. Not good at all, especially as the White-rumped Sandpiper decided to take this opportunity to stop preening and start edging towards the far end of the pond. Eventually I reached the water’s edge, and had to snap a shot no matter how distant. It’s frustrating to have to photograph like this, but hey, at least I got to photograph a White-rumped Sandpiper for the first time ever!

So it's one of my worst pics I've ever taken. Doesn't matter. Had White-rumped.

On the way back, I pointed out to Nick a couple of wriggling shapes in one of the ponds. They turned out to be Common Carp, and as the water level continued to fall in the now-isolated pond, the large fish had nowhere to go. I’d feel sorry for them, but the carp are a major invasive species around here, and if there’s an easy way to rid the lake of a couple dozen, I’m all for it.

This pic represents only a fraction of the fish struggling to survive in the shrinking pool.

Plus, turns out the shallow-swimming carp make for easy pickin’s! Nick and I met Scott (they guy who found the no-show swan) atop the railroad grade, and as we discussed our findings for the day a pair of immature Bald Eagles began to circle closer and closer to the fishy bonanza. I didn’t see the attack occur, but the next thing I know one of the Bald Eagles had a carp in its talons and started to rip into the fish while sitting in the nearby sedges.

And then he flew off after being mobbed by a bunch of crows.

We checked Hickory Hills one last time, and just to be safe scoped the Cheek Road causeway, but even with an extra pair of eyes courtesy Nate from The Drinking Bird, the swan remained unseen – but I don’t regret it for a minute. Sure it would’ve been nice to get the bird, but at least the wayward swan got me out to Falls Lake so I could check out rusties and pipits and eagles – any day I can mention those birds in the same sentence is a winner in my book!